January 25 – February 1, 2019

Friday, January 25

Genesis 25: Abraham, having spent most of his life childless, seems to have overdone it a bit toward the end. He married a woman named Keturah, who bore him quite a family (verses 1-6). This brief account sits somewhat outside of the central core of the biblical narrative, almost as an afterthought. Although it may have taken place prior to the marriage of Isaac in the previous chapter, the story is told at the very end, just before Abraham’s death. Its insertion into the Bible manifests a concern to show that the Israelites were related by blood to other peoples who lived in the region, particularly the Midianites and Kedemites (“Easterners”), nomadic tribes of the Arabian and Syrian deserts.

At the same time, however, care is taken to show that Abraham kept this later family separate from Isaac (verse 6), who alone was the heir of the divine promises.

At Abraham’s death, he is buried in the same plot that he purchased earlier at Hebron for the burial of Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac join to bury their father, a fact apparently indicating that some contact between the two household had been maintained (verses 7-11). The scene of Abraham’s burial, uniting these two peoples of the Middle East, seems especially poignant in our own day.

Now that Abraham has died, the Bible’s interest will go to the history of Isaac and his family. This is not done, however, until the author had tidied up Ishmael and his own progeny (verses 12-18). Here we observe that twelve tribes trace their lineage back to Ishmael, a parallel to the twelve tribes that will spring from the seed of Jacob later on. Various of these Arabian tribes will be mentioned again in Holy Scripture, in Exodus and Chronicles for example.

The latter part of this chapter concerns Isaac’s own sons, twins who begin to fight even in Rebekah’s womb (verses 22-23). These men were already rivals, and, according to Romans 9:10-13, God had already chosen one of them in preference over the other. Just as God chose Isaac in preference to Ishmael, He chose Jacob in preference to Esau. “Choice” in this context does not pertain to eternal salvation, but to the role that Jacob was destined to play in the history of salvation. God’s “rejection” of Esau means only that he was not chosen to play that role; in the same sense, God will “reject” the older brothers in favor of David (1 Samuel 16:5-12). There is nothing in the Sacred Text, either in Genesis, Malachi 1:1-5, or Romans, even faintly to suggest that Esau was predestined to hell. No more than the brothers of David was Esau “rejected” in the sense of being damned to hell. (Moreover, “predestination” in Holy Scripture is always an aspect of divine grace; we are “predestined” only in Christ. Holy Scripture knows no other meaning of the word. Thus, to speculate about a “predestination to hell” is to speculate without biblical support and at variance with a biblical concept.) The important point is that Jacob was chosen for this role in the history of salvation, not because of any merits of his own, but solely by the grace of God.

Saturday, January 26

Matthew 8:5-13: In today’s story, it is the centurion—not Jesus—who tells the parable. This is rare; normally it is Jesus who tells the parable.

Here, nonetheless, the parable comes from the centurion. He says to Jesus, “I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

All this is declared, of course, by way of parable. It is symbolic speech, in which the meaning is conveyed by metaphor and simile. The metaphor here is military.

The meaning of the centurion’s parable has to do with authority: “I also am a man placed under authority.” That is to say, the centurion, in order to understand what Jesus is about, has recourse to what in military terms is called the “chain of command,” because he recognizes a source of authority in Jesus. The authority to make things happen by way of command is something this centurion perceives and readily understands.

It is possible that no one in the New Testament understood, better than this centurion, the function of a parable. In his short declaration about authority, it is easy to discern that the centurion faithfully copied the style of Jesus’ own parables. Just as our Lord sent his listeners to their own labor and occupations to discern the inner mysteries of divine grace—just as He directed the farmer, for example, to inspect the spiritual aspects of both the sowing (8:4-15) and the harvest (10:2)—just as He encouraged the shepherd (15:4-15) and the fisherman (Matthew 4:19) to consider the religious dimensions of their labor—so this centurion pondered the circumstances of his military profession in order to discern the spiritual quality of a truth.

And what did the centurion learn? He perceived the unseen but effective power of authority. He knew himself “subject to authority,” meaning that he recognized his subordination to the government of Rome and to Herod Antipas, from whom he received his commission.

The centurion was a man who did what he was told, because he acknowledged the claims of that unseen spiritual reality called “authority.” In addition, the centurion himself exercised some measure of that authority; he spoke a command, and others obeyed him. His word was effective. To borrow the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews, this authority, to which the centurion referred, was “not seen,” but there was no doubt about the “evidence” of it.

Because it is a spiritual reality, authority is essentially invisible but is expressed in signs. Yet, no one reasonably doubts the real and very consequential existence of authority; there is overwhelming evidence for it everywhere, and the centurion knows this from his own life and vocation. Consequently, he is able to recognize the evidence of authority in the work of Jesus.

He is manifestly familiar, not only with the Lord’s parables, but also with his miracles. He may not have seen those wonders firsthand, but he knows about them from others. Word has reached him already that Jesus’ “word was with authority” (Luke 4:32).

The centurion’s faith, then, which is declared greater than any in Israel, is based on hearing, but he weighs well the evidence witnessed in what he has heard. And that evidence testifies to something any rational centurion can detect at a glance: the authority of lordship, the authority that makes things happen by the simple diction of a command.

Sunday, January 27

Matthew 8:14-22: Matthew’s account is distinguished by: (1) the removal of all the characters except Jesus and this woman, so that the encounter is entirely person-to-person (Indeed, in verse 15 the lady in question serves “Him,” not the “them” of Mark 1:31.); (2) Matthew’s insertion of the expression “by word” (logo) in verse 16, an addition that heightens the sense of the Lord’s power and ties this text back to 8:8; (3) the quotation from Isaiah in 8:17, which continues Matthew’s sustained emphasis on Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament.

What further distinguishes Matthew’s account here, however, is his addition of a quotation from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, which the entire Christian Tradition reads as a prophecy of the Passion of Christ. This addition is sudden and unexpected. In fact, this quotation from Isaiah is the earliest explicit reference to the Lord’s Passion in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew inserts this mention of the Passion in order to prepare for Jesus’ summons to discipleship in the verses that follow:

Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Then another of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8.18-22).

Hebrews 3:1-11: Throughout this work the author several times reveals some sense of alarm that his hearers are in danger of not finishing the course undertaken in that profession. In fact, this book contains the New Testament’s clearest warnings against apostasy.

To demonstrate the possibility of a radical falling away, our author’s first example comes from the period of the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinai desert. He was much impressed that only two adults, among the 600,000 who left Egypt, actually made it to the Promised Land. The rest of the people defected in the wilderness.

The author of Hebrews makes this point by citing Psalm 95 (94) and commenting on it over the space of two chapters: “Today, if you will hear His voice, ‘Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. Therefore. I was angry with that generation,’ And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath,‘ They shall not enter My rest.’”

That psalm, used as an invitation to prayer (“Come, let us sing unto the Lord”), daily renewed in the mind of God’s people the terrible fate of that generation of Israelites for whom the Exodus itself came to naught. They left Egypt for nothing. They died without reaching the very purpose of the Exodus—arrival in the Promised Land. That psalm warned all Israelites that the same fate could befall them!

Monday, January 28

Matthew 8:23-34: In the account of the stilling of the storm, the Lord again speaks of faith, which was also the point of the second miracle account, the story of the centurion (8:10,13). There is a striking contrast between the utter serenity of the Lord (asleep!) and the agitation of the disciples. The Lord imposes his own tranquility on the sea itself (8:26).

Dominant in this narrative is a Christology of majesty, ending with the major query of the gospel itself: “Who is this?” (8:27) This is the very question that Peter, in the name of the Church, will answer in 16:16. The correct answering of this question is the affirmation of faith on which, as a foundation stone, is constructed (16:18).

The question asked in the storm scene (“Who is this?”) is now answered by the demons themselves: “Jesus, the Son of God” (8:29). In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the account of expelling of these demons follows the storm on the lake, that that the external turbulence of the elements prepares for the internal turbulence of the soul. It is a point of great irony in this story that the local citizens, who had managed to overcome somewhat their fear of the demoniacs, are so completely terror-struck by the Lord’s action that they request that he leave them be (8:34).

The suggestion of conversion and repentance at the waterside evokes the imagery of baptism. Does the juxtaposition of these two scenes—the storm and the demoniac—represent a preaching motif of early Christian preaching, a remnant of pre-baptismal catechesis, or does it simply mean the two events actually followed one another in sequence? It is difficult to say, but it is also unnecessary to decide. The two stories clearly belong together, which is doubtless the reason all three Synoptics put them together. Christian readers have long read them together, and Christian preachers have, with marvelous frequency, made them components in the same sermon.

Psalms 44 (Greek & Latin 43): This psalm begins with an appeal to Tradition: “We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us.” Such an appeal to the lessons of history is, of course, standard in the Bible, for the biblical God is, first and last, “the God of our fathers.” Thus, the message of Genesis has to do with God’s fidelity to Israel’s patriarchs, while Exodus tells of Israel’s redemption by that same patriarchal God. Other historical books of the Bible narrate the continued faithfulness of His promises to an unfaithful people. The prophetic literature, likewise, constantly looks back to God’s redemptive work throughout Israel’s history, as both paradigm and prophecy of what He will do for His people in the future.

A similar note is sounded strongly in the Wisdom literature of the Bible. The Book of Proverbs, for instance, is forever appealing to the moral lessons of history, that complex of disciplines and standards learned by experience, prescribed by the authority of Tradition and handed down through succeeding generations. In this case too, biblical religion is essentially an inherited religion, and its Lord is “the God of our fathers.”

Tradition is also the note on which our psalm begins, then, almost its entire first half being taken up with a review of past experience. But God is not only the God of the patriarchs in the past; He is also our own God, one and the same: “You are my king and my God, You who command victories for Jacob.”

Tuesday, January 29

Genesis 29: At about noon (v. 7) Jacob arrives at the city well of Haran, where he finds three shepherds that have already assembled with their flocks (v. 2). They are waiting for other shepherds to arrive, so that there will be enough manpower to remove the very heavy stone that covers the mouth of the well (vv. 3, 8). It says a great deal of Jacob’s physical strength that he is able, all by himself, to do the job (v. 10). (And we recall that he was the weaker of the twins borne by Rebekah!) Just as Jacob begins to inquire about Laban, his mother’s brother, his interlocutors point out to him that Laban’s daughter, Rachel, is approaching. Thus, like Abraham’s servant in chapter 24, Jacob is
promptly blessed by the arrival of a young woman who proves to be a lady of destiny (vv. 6, 9–12). Once again like the servant in the earlier case, Jacob tells the whole story, “all that happened,” to Laban (v. 13).

Immediately Jacob falls in love with Rachel, whose physical appearance is contrasted with that of her older sister, Leah (vv. 13–30). Jacob’s preference is clear, and he agrees to work the seven years that his cunning uncle requires. For Laban, however, Jacob’s preference in the matter posed a bit of a problem. While there would be no difficulty finding a husband for Rachel, Laban was less certain about Leah’s prospects. During those seven years, no one had sought the hand of Leah. Laban determined, therefore, to look out for the fortunes of
his elder daughter. Accordingly, Laban pulls a rather mean trick, a trick rendered possible because the bride was veiled (vv. 21–25). It is not hard to figure out the wily Laban, who does not shrink from taking advantage when he can. He studies situations carefully, spots weaknesses in his associates, and consistently uses people.

There is a special irony in the account, as well. Jacob deceived his father in
chapter 27; now he is in turn deceived by his new father-in-law; in each case it was a matter of a “false identity.”

Laban then makes the “magnanimous gesture” of offering Jacob both daughters as wives (v. 27), which procures the wives’ father, of course, another seven years of service from Jacob. (This sororal marriage will later be forbidden in the Mosaic Law; cf. Leviticus 18:18).

Laban has clearly thought this whole plan out ahead of time. This procedure is Laban’s way of keeping his property in the family. He has now procured this apparently dimwitted nephew, an energetic worker who will do whatever is required of him. This nephew will be married to both of his daughters. All of their children will be Laban’s; all the property will be his; everything will be his (31:43). From this point on, the story becomes a rivalry of wits between Jacob and Laban. Jacob will prove more than a match for his father-in-law.

Wednesday, January 30

Genesis 30: This chapter describes two tests of wills: between Rachel and Leah,
and between Laban and Jacob. In fact, this is an important chapter in the mounting tension and conflict of the Genesis story. We began with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. Then came the conflict of Isaac’s household, between Esau and Jacob. After the present chapter it will continue in the accounts of Jacob’s family, eventually leading to Joseph’s being sold by his brothers into slavery. Among the patriarchs there seems to have been precious little domestic tranquility. If one is looking for something along the lines of “The Secret to a Happy Family Life,” Genesis is generally not much help.

At the end of chapter 29 the competition between Leah and Rachel was going strongly to the favor of the former. She has four sons to Rachel’s none as chapter 30 begins. Growing rather desperate (vv. 1–2), Rachel resorts to a tactic earlier employed by Sarah; this legal fiction is well attested in the extant literature of that time and period, specifically the Nuzi Tablets from excavations near the Tigris River.

Rachel’s plan, which effectively gives Jacob a third wife, works to her advantage (vv. 3–8). Two can play that game, thinks Leah, who promptly follows the same tack (vv. 9–12). Now Jacob has four wives and eight sons. Very quickly, however, the two sisters go beyond the niceties of the law. Leah resorts to a fertility drug (vv. 13–21) and bears two more sons and a daughter. At last Rachel has a son (vv. 22–24), whose story will dominate the final chapters of Genesis.

The relationship between Laban and Jacob has been something of a domestic business arrangement all along. For all legal and practical purposes, Jacob has become Laban’s son and heir. Meanwhile, however, everything still belongs to Laban. When Jacob asks to have a little something for himself (vv. 25–34), he appears to be requesting a mere pittance, because in the Middle East the sheep are normally white and the goats normally black. Speckled and spotted animals are the exception. Laban, however, takes steps to eliminate even that pittance (vv. 35–36).

Meanwhile, Jacob, having grown a great deal smarter, has plans of his own (vv. 37–43). In putting three days’ distance between his own herds and those shepherded by Jacob, Laban intends to keep the speckled goats and the dark sheep away from him. This plan backfires, because it permits Jacob to have a three-days’ jump on Laban when it comes time to leave.

Thursday, January 31

Matthew 9:14-17: Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew.

In His response to the question, Jesus makes it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who faster on Mondays and Thursdays.

Genesis 31: Jacob summons his wives away from the tents and the ears of inquisitive servants who might report the discussion back to Laban. His argument is twofold, both earthly and heavenly. In purely earthly terms, he is fed up with working for Laban. As regards the heavenly, Jacob has heard from the God who had revealed Himself earlier, the “God of Bethel,” El-Bethel. That God had earlier promised to bring him back home (28:15), and now He is fulfilling that promise (verses 3,13).

It turns out that Laban’s daughters are none too happy with their father’s treatment either. In his injustice to Jacob, Laban has also been unjust to his own flesh. He has treated them, not as daughters, but as outsiders. He not only sold them to Jacob; he has already used up the money he got for them! Leah and Rachel do not agree about much, but they do agree that it is time to start thinking of the welfare of their own children (verses 14-18). They flee (verses 19-21).

Somebody in Jacob’s party (and the reader already knows who) has, in addition, pilfered one of Laban’s household gods. This incident does say something about the introduction of idolatry into the family, a problem that will prove to be chronic in biblical history. Holy Scripture provides numerous instances of idolatry introduced into Israel by the wives of Israel’s kings (cf. 1 Kings 15:13, for instance).

To cover her tracks, Rachel resorts to a ruse (verses 33-37), about which two points may be made. First, the reader is expected to be amused that a god is being sat upon. Second, there seems to be no end of deception in this family!

Friday, February 1

Matthew 9:18-26: As the Savior begins to walk toward the home of Jairus—where he will raise that man’s daughter from the dead—a large crowd of followers is pressing around him. Hiding within this crowd is a woman who, strictly speaking, is not supposed to be there, mixing indiscriminately with other people. She is ritually unclean.

Twelve years earlier, this woman began to have her period, something she had taken as normal since about the age of twelve. She did not worry about this; it was a scheduled inconvenience, as it were, a nuisance at best, something women had experienced ever since the day when Eve took that first bite of the forbidden fruit. She was confident, however, that the bleeding would be over in a few days.

Meanwhile, this lady recognized a social fact: she was ritually impure, according to the Mosaic Law. And, as ritually impure, she suffered a measure of monthly ostracism: For instance, she did not eat at the common table with her family during this time. She was forbidden, moreover, to prepare the family’s meals. She slept alone and was prohibited from touching her husband and children for a few days. The details were all worked out in the Torah. It would be over soon; the proper sacrifice would be offered, and she could return to her normal life and routine.

Much to her chagrin, the bleeding did not stop. It continued for a whole month, and then a second month, and then a third. At some point she consulted physicians about the problem, but to no avail. Indeed, according to the gospel of Mark, her consultation with the doctors actually made things worse—a detail curiously omitted by “the beloved physician,” the evangelist Luke!

By the end of the year, the lady was in terrible shape. She suffered from severe anemia, from the loss of blood and iron. Her nerves were on edge. She had not touched another human being in twelve months. Instead of enduring ostracism for a few days, she started to suffer the emotional ravages of total isolation. Her responses grew erratic and strange, as depression became chronic. By the end of a year, the woman’s self-image and sense of personal dignity were severely impaired. But a second year followed, and this one much worse.

Let us not regard this woman as a fictional character in one of Jesus’ parables. She is a real person, whose very soul and body are being destroyed by a condition over which she has no control. By the time we find her in the gospel story, this lady has suffered the trauma and devastation of her condition for twelve whole years. Meanwhile, her children have grown up, and now she has grandchildren, whom she is forbidden to touch. Life is passing her by, and her sole hope is that it will pass by quickly.

Nonetheless, the lady has, of late, heard a rumor about the wonder-worker, Jesus of Nazareth. There is word on the street that healings have been conveyed by the mere touch of his clothing (Matthew 14:36). Clinging desperately to this final chance of deliverance, she resolves even to violate the Law by hiding herself in a crowd. Unnoticed, she inches forward to the point where her extended finger, reaching through the closely packed mass of other bodies, can barely touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. “And immediately,” says Luke, her flow of blood stopped” (8:44). She feels the sudden surge of health
rushing into her wasted frame. The trauma of twelve years is over!

Yes, it is over, but something new is just about to begin. This lady is not the only one who felt something when Jesus’ garment was touched. Jesus, also, perceives that power—dynamis—has gone out from him, and he is unwilling to let the matter lie. Turning about, he declares, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.”

Indeed, somebody. For twelve years this woman has thought of herself as a nobody, but to Jesus she is somebody. He will not permit her to be concealed, lost, and absorbed in a crowd. She has an identity. She is somebody! Now healed in body by the physical act of touching, she must begin the healing of her spirit by being spoken to and reassured.

So, he who calls each of his sheep by name requires the lady to come forward and be identified. Now. when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately.